Gil Crouch was working in his Bryson City business one day this summer when a regular visitor to town told Crouch that he would not be returning ever again because he was repulsed by its deteriorating look.
“Quite frankly, this is one of the dirtiest communities that I’ve been in (in) Western North Carolina,” said Crouch, recalling the man’s words.
Crouch was one of about 50 area residents and business owners who attended a public forum Monday to discuss a proposed land use ordinance. The ordinance would stipulate aesthetic standards such as architecture, building materials and landscaping for new development.
“I think the plan … is going to take a lot of thought,” Crouch said. “There are some things we can do now.”
Crouch listed signage and beautification as improvements that could be implemented immediately.
In Bryson City, there are currently no regulations for new commercial or residential buildings — anything goes. But, the town began looking at adopting some standards after a building that clashed with the town’s quaint appearance served as a wake-up call.
People began lobbying for some official appearance or building standards, in part, because of a tan metal-sided structure erected on Main Street in 2006. At the time, residents and business owners expressed their dislike for the building, saying it clashed with the character of Bryson City’s historic downtown.
Ed Ciociola, who owns a few businesses on the outskirts of town, said the town needs something to prevent metal buildings from being erected downtown. Bryson City is known as the “quiet side of the Smokies,” he said, and we need to maintain its quaint look and feel.
Its brick façades and small local shops characterize the town’s Main Street. Because of a lack of regulations, people have cluttered U.S. 19, the entrance into town, with homemade and unattractive signs.
Forum attendees were pretty much split down the middle — about half agreeing with the current plan and half disagreeing with at least some portion of it. Most residents who approved of the ordinance in its current form stood, stated their agreement and resumed their seats without further comment. The show of force was intended to send a message to the town board that there is support for the standards as town leaders weigh whether to implement them.
“I am for the plan,” said resident Peggy Duncan. “This may not be the perfect plan for everyone, but it’s a plan.”
“The consensus is that we are in favor of a plan,” said Mayor-elect Tom Sutton, who spoke up as an average resident as he doesn’t take office for another two weeks. Sutton adding that the town will likely pass “something really close to this.”
Bryson City residents agreed that town needs regulations, particularly regarding signage and pedestrian safety. However, reviews of the ordinance under consideration were mixed.
“I am very excited that you are looking at some kind of regulations,” said Gail Findlay, a 16-year resident of Bryson City who works for the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad.
“I just see a real inconsistency” in the look of the town, Findlay said. “I want us to put on a good face.”
Several speakers, including Findlay, reminded people that Bryson City’s economy is dependant on tourism and complained about decaying downtown buildings and vacant overgrown lots, which could deter tourists.
“We can clean up,” said Natalie Warwick. “It does not take much to clean up.”
Pick up any litter you see; sweep the sidewalk in front of your business, Warwick implored.
Charlene Hogue, a resident and self-proclaimed private property rights activist, said that land use ordinances like this one take away people’s property rights, and the town should proceed with “great caution.”
“In my opinion, that is way too big for this small town,” Hogue said of the 91-page ordinance.
Mark Hanna, a resident for six years who has worked in commercial real estate, said he had “significant” concerns, calling the plan “very restrictive and possibly very expensive” for developers.
Property owners could pass additional costs on to their renters, stunting local growth.
“I think some of the things in here are too strong,” said Mark Fortner. “People won’t build and or they won’t remodel because they don’t want to get into that expense.”
Property owner Mitchell Jenkins agreed that the plan is too strict.
“I think small people like me would have a hard time building,” Jenkins said.
Town leaders said none of the comments about the proposed regulations surprised them.
The Board of Aldermen will “digest what we heard” and will hold a series of meeting to talk about the future of the ordinance, said Alderman Tom Reidmiller.
“It was a very good meeting with a lot of good comments,” said Alderman Kate Welch.
The planning board spent three years drafting proposed regulations and received a rather lukewarm response from the Board of Aldermen earlier this year when the plan was unveiled. Last week, Aldermen Jim Gribble said he thought the regulations were restrictive, while Mayor Brad Walker said other people liked the ordinance as it was.
Walker called the meeting “very instructive” and said that the criticism would be taken under advisement.
Sutton, who will take over as mayor next month, plans to talk to several residents about their specific concerns since most who spoke did not specify exactly what they did or did not like.